A Beautiful Mind #AspieKid

 

Reminiscing

 

Autism Awareness Month has highlighted the need for me to increase MY awareness of the Autism community!

Who knew?

I now have a much greater appreciation of the diversity and perspectives within the Autism community.

But to my surprise this has brought with it a greater sense of isolation.

 

The far reaches of the Spectrum

I already have a good understanding of the intellectually gifted part of the Spectrum.

Some people are intimidated by intellect.

I have always been in awe of superior intellect.

I experience it the same way as I experience:

  • Sunset on a mountain top or over the ocean
  • The first frost and then snow of the Winter
  • Mozart
  • Beauty

One such person was, until recently, a well know blogger in the autism community.

I loved the style, content and fine detail of his writing.

He clearly invested a lot of time researching his topics and the focal lens of his perspective was magical.

He has the gift of being able to paint pictures with words and infusing them with emotion.

With him I was always in the presence of greatness and it was a joy to behold.

Sadly he has now withdrawn from social media.

The only trace that now remains is the post below that I managed to salvage.

  • coincidentally one of my favorite

As Autism Understanding and Acceptance Month draws to a close, I want to mark it by honoring my friend, who taught me so much about detail, beauty, intellect, autism and the autistic experience.

Like me he blogged anonymously.

I never got the chance to say goodbye to him.

So here it is:

 

Thank you Aspie Kid, for sharing your work with us.

You are missed by so many and there is a vacuum where you once stood.

Be well my friend.

 

Once Upon a Time

This piece of music captures how I felt when he left and how I still feel.

Play it while you read 🙂

 

 

 

The Unconventional Life of Stu Ungar

Posted on March 23, 2012
Stuart Errol Ungar was born in New York City in 1953. His father was a bookie and owned a bar where gamblers hung out. As early as age 7, Stuey kept the books for his father’s book making business, taking bets from gamblers and keeping track of the odds and payouts. In the 1960s, gin rummy and poker were equally popular among gamblers. Stuey learned both games by watching people play and noticing the mistakes they would make. He started playing cards with the gamblers in his father’s bar when he was only 8, and he would win money from them. Stuey was very good with numbers and became fascinated with gambling and odds at a very young age. He performed so well in school, especially in math, that he was allowed to skip 7th grade. His teachers suggested that he might be a genius. He won his first gin rummy tournament at the age of 10. Professional gin players flew in from Canada and Las Vegas to play against the tiny kid who could beat professionals, and he almost always won their money. By the time Stuey was in his mid teens, he had won about $10,000 playing gin rummy.Just imagine it for a moment. A hyperactive little boy, who some described as a leprechaun, playing cards with middle aged men who made their livings as gamblers, and he beat them consistently. One world class gambler who knew him when he was a kid said, “When he was completely focused, Stuey could see things that other people didn’t. He was a genius.” Another gambler who knew Stuey when he was young would later remember, “In those days he had a sweet innocence to him that, uh…. disappeared along the way.” There are several books and documentaries about Stuey Ungar’s life, and they all discuss his bizarre personality traits, rare and unbelievable talents and his unusual behavior. Many people have speculated about what might have motivated Stuey to make the choices he made in life and what drove him to behave the way he did. But as far as I know, no one has ever suggested that Stuey might have been autistic. From what I know about him, I am almost certain that autism is what made Stuey Ungar so unique in so many ways. Let’s take a look at his life from that perspective.Many autistic individuals look much younger than are. This is a known fact in the world of autism. I am on the autism spectrum myself and I still get carded when buying alcohol, even though I am in my late forties. And just like me, Stuey looked years younger than his age. Later in life, his youthful appearance would earn him the nickname “The Kid”.Bullying is also a common problem for autistic kids, especially the ones who are small and geeky-looking. However, bullying would not be a problem in Stuey’s life. After his father died when he was 13, Stuey dropped out of school so that he could spend more time gambling, which was already his main obsession. The gamblers he knew from his father’s bar became his new father figures. They were his mentors, his protectors and his closest friends. When he was still a teenager, his best friend was a 60 year old member of the Genovese crime family named Victor Romano. Stuey and Victor had a lot in common and bonded because of similar interests, despite an age difference of more than 40 years. They were both highly intelligent and extremely good at calculating gambling odds. Victor was one of the best card players in the city, but he was no match for Stuey. Stuey also had at least one friend in the Lucchese crime family. That’s right, Stuey was very well protected, untouchable in New York City. And that was good thing too, because he had a reputation for shooting his mouth off and humiliating his opponents as he beat them at cards and won their money. Autism is often associated with things like intensely focused interests and high intelligence, but social grace is rarely mentioned as an autistic personality trait. Stuey’s demeanor at the card table was often described as crass.

Soon no one in New York City would play gin rummy against Stuey, not even the best professional gin rummy players in town. In the early 1970s, he left New York and moved to Miami Florida to find other high stakes gin rummy players who were willing to play against him. But he had the same problem in Miami that he had in New York. Within a short time, he had earned the reputation of a gin rummy player that nobody wanted to play against. He would humiliate his opponents to the point that some professional players dropped out of the gin rummy scene all together. In the early 1970s, Stuey played against professional gin rummy player Harry Stein in a high-stakes Hollywood Gin match. Stuey won 86 games, Stein won zero. Harry Stein stopped playing gin professionally and disappeared from public life.

“I never want to be called a good loser. Show me a good loser and I’ll just show you a loser.”

~ Stu Ungar

When Stuey was about 20 years old, he moved to Las Vegas where gin rummy was still played in casinos and he hoped to find more opponents. Professional card player Billy Baxter remembers the first time he met Stuey. Some people approached me and they said, “We got a young kid in town that likes to play gin rummy, and I understand you play gin rummy and we’d like to set up a game.” So I said, “Sure, I’ll play him.” They bring in this little kid who looked like he might have weighed 90 pounds, and he was so young it was unbelievable. I mean, I didn’t believe that’s the guy I was gonna be playin’. He was so small, they set the table up and they put a Coca-Cola crate in his chair. He had to sit up on the Coca-Cola crate in order to be big enough to get up to the table. And naturally he beat me out of $40,000. That was my first introduction to Stuey Ungar. Billy Baxter and Stuey Ungar remained lifelong friends after that day.

Poker legend Doyle Brunson remembers one of the first times he met Stuey. He was very hyper. He’d be sitting at a table and he was bouncing his leg, moving with his hands or talking and getting up and walking around. I wondered if he was old enough to be in the casino and I thought to myself, this must be some rich kid. I didn’t know that I was looking at the best gin rummy player that ever lived.

It didn’t take long before the casinos in Las Vegas asked Stuey not to play in their gin rummy tournaments, because no one else would enter the tournaments if he was playing. In order to satisfy his gambling obsession, Stuey started playing blackjack and allegedly won over a million dollars in a short period of time. He did it by counting cards, which is against the rules of blackjack and illegal under the rules of the Nevada Gaming Commission. But since card counting is so hard to prove, blackjack dealers use a blackjack shoe to deal from multiple decks of cards at once. Counting cards from 6 or 7 decks at once is almost humanly impossible. But it was already well known around Las Vegas that Stuey had a genius-level IQ and an eidetic memory. Casino owner Bob Stupak bet Stuey $100,000 that he could not count down to the last card in a 6-deck shoe. In order to win the bet, Stuey would have to keep track of 311 cards and then correctly identify the one remaining card left in the shoe. Stuey won the bet and Bob Stupak wrote him a check for $100,000. However, Stuey was banned from playing blackjack across the entire city of Las Vegas after that. But there was a new game in town that was becoming more popular in Las Vegas in the 1970s. It was a variation of the traditional game of 5 card draw poker, called Texas Holdem. Texas Holdem was introduce to Las Vegas casinos by Texas poker legends Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Crandell Addington.


Stu Ungar 3Stuey Ungar at age 26, in the 1980 World Series Of Poker.
Photo from The Online Poker.

In 1980, Stuey entered the World Series Of Poker. It was his first major Texas Holdem tournament and only his second poker tournament. After a couple days of play only 2 players remained in the tournament. It came down to Stuey Ungar and Texas Holdem legend Doyle Brunson. Doyle recalls I played with him each day, and I never saw anybody that improved from day to day like he did in that tournament. And it came down just to he and I were the last two players. He fooled me on a hand, won all my chips, and he was the champion and I was the second place finisher. Stuey won $365,000 in that tournament. The following year, he would shock the poker world by defending his title and winning the World Series Of Poker for a second consecutive year, with a cash prize of $375,000. As he became a celebrity in the fledgling poker world of the early 1980s, Stuey earned a couple of new nicknames around the city of Las Vegas, like “Boy Genius” and “Gambling Savant”.

In 1979 Stuey’s mother died. It was the most difficult experience of his life up to that point. Autistic people do not process emotional trauma the way most people do. Negative feelings are often expressed in ways that might shock most people. They freak out. They melt down. They blow up. Even the tiniest little problem can turn into a major emotional crisis. Having already been described as crass at the card table, Stuey’s outbursts seemed to get worse when he lived in Las Vegas and I believe that difficulty in processing his mother’s death may have changed his behavior in a bad way. Doyle Brunson said He couldn’t handle adversity, and he would do things that he shouldn’t do. At the poker table he was one of the most obnoxious people I’ve ever known. I almost got in 2 or 3 fights with him. Billy Baxter described some of Stuey’s behavior this way. He was a person that would lash out at the dealers, or uh…. ya know, he just would say things to other players, ya know. And former cardroom manager Eric Drache tells of a particular incident when a dealer quit her job because of the way Stuey treated her. He was so out of line, cursing at the dealer, almost spitting at her, she came standing next to me in her street clothes and I said, “What happened?” She goes, “Oh, well I just quit!” And I said, “Well, what happened?” She said, “I’m quitting ’cause I’m gonna kick his ass!!”

When Stuey Ungar moved to Las Vegas in the 1970s, poker was relatively new in town, and brilliant and energetic young players would play poker for more than 48 hours at a time. Some fellow poker players showed Stuey how he could stay awake and alert for such long periods of time without losing his focus and concentration, and as a result Stuey developed a new obsession: cocaine. Years later he told an interviewer that his mother’s death might also have led him to start using cocaine. Many of his friends in the poker world attributed some of his behavior at the poker table to his cocaine use. However, almost all of the poker players were heavy cocaine users at the time too, but none of them seemed to have the temper that Stuey had. Cocaine use did not distinguish Stuey from most of the other poker players at the time, but autism most likely did.

There are other things about Stuey Ungar that also lead me to believe that he was most likely on the autism spectrum. Aside from his boyish appearance, he also had the characteristic prominent cheek bones, wide smile and eyes of an autistic male. Looking at videos of Stuey, you can see that his hands and feet were almost in a constant state of motion, stimming behavior that is almost exclusive to autistic individuals.

I can personally attest to the fact that certain autistic people have an advantage at the poker table. Like Stuey, I was lucky enough to have been born with a genius level IQ and I had an advanced understanding of math and odds at a young age. I have been told by several people that my eyes are sometimes very intimidating and my facial expressions are extremely hard to read, both of which I attribute to autism, and I’ve learned to use these things to my advantage in various situations in life. I lived in Las Vegas briefly and supported myself playing poker during the summer of 2006. I entered a low stakes online poker tournament of 360 players once and finished first. One day, while I was watching some high stakes poker players at the Wynn Poker Room, a guy came up to me and shook my hand. I didn’t know him, but he knew me. He said he had seen me play before and he always left the table when I sat down. It is really a great honor to have a fellow poker player tell you they don’t feel comfortable playing at the same table with you.

Stuey once said this about his own abilities I was a freak. I was like Bobby Fischer. It was freaky what I did. People would teach me a card game that I never played and two days later I would be better than them at a card game they’ve been playing for 30 years. I was a freak of nature. In case you are not familiar with Bobby Fischer, who Stuey compared himself to, Bobby was a chess Grand Master at the age of 14 and is widely believed to have been autistic.

There are other ways that I can understand Stuey from the perspective of autism, in ways that no one else could ever make sense of him. If Stuey would win $500,000 it would most likely be gone in a matter of weeks, or even hours, almost always on horseraces, sports betting or drugs. His friend Mike Sexton said The problem with Stuey was, he never really understood the object of the game in terms of being a professional gambler, ya know, and the object of course is to increase your bankroll, improve your lifestyle and provide for your family. But this makes perfect sense to me. You can’t project neurotypical values onto autistic people. It doesn’t work that way. They have different values. Different things motivate them in life. I once spent weeks making charts and graphs of music theory concepts, never intending to use it to make music, just to understand it. It became an obsession of mine and my friends thought I was crazy. The only reason they could think of to learn music theory was to get rich making music. But I thought they were crazy too. Understanding music theory was not the means to an end for me, it was the end itself. I believe the same was true for Stuey Ungar. I don’t think Stuey ever had an interest in getting rich or being rich. I think he only wanted to play the game and prove his ability. That makes perfect sense to me looking at his life under the assumption that Stuey was indeed autistic.

Nothing about Stuey’s life would indicate that wealth was important to him. His attorney Stephen Stein tells one of many stories of how Stuey would literally give away huge amounts of money. We bumped into each other at one of the hotels and he pulled me aside and he said, “You look terrible. What’s the matter with you?” And I said, “I’m having some problems at home.” And he went into his pocket and he handed me $10,000 in $100 bills and he said, “You need some money? Here.” And he said, “Whenever you can pay me back, pay me back. And if you don’t pay me back, I don’t care.” And he walked away. Now, how many people do you know who’ll do that for you? Doyle Brusnson also remembers a time when Stuey literally gave money away. I remember we were walking down the street one time and this guy came up behind us and he said, “Stuey, I’m broke. Can you help me out?” Stuey took a $100 bill and just handed it behind him and he took it and went away. And I said, “Stuey, who was that?” He said, “I don’t know. If I’d have known his name I’d have given him $200.” And that’s the kind of person he was.

Stuey rarely checked his mail and went without paying his bills until his services were shut off. He never had a checking account and paid for everything in cash. His ex-wife Madeline explains how Stuey barely understood how banks work. He was naive to a lot of the worldly things. So ya know, I went to go buy the home, I went to go buy the cars. I had to do everything. He thought you write a check and the check is good, ya know, he didn’t realize you have to go in the bank, put the money in the bank for it to be good.

Stuey owned several luxury cars at one point in his life, but he rarely drove, preferring to take a taxi instead. He returned a Mercedes Benz to the dealership one time complaining that the car had stopped working, only to have the mechanic explain to him that the engine had seized up because it had run out of oil, to which Stuey angrily responded, “Why didn’t you tell me I had to put oil in it?”

Throughtout the 1980s, Stuey would go on to break records and shock the professional poker world. He became the only player in history to win both the World Series Of Poker and Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl Of Poker, the two biggest and most prestigious poker tournaments in the world. And even though no other player in history won both of those tournaments, Stuey won both of them three times. During that period, his cocaine use increased. It is my opinion that cocaine was a particularly dangerous drug for Stuey because of autism. Another thing that is well known about certain autistic people is that some of them are self-abusive. I suspect that Stuey probably used cocaine as a form of stimming, or as a way to allow his body to keep up with his mind. Or he might have been self medicating in some way, or trying to distract himself from the loneliness and isolation of knowing that no one will ever truly understand him or the way his mind worked.

During the 1980s, Stuey’s wife filed for divorce. She had had enough of his drug use and the financial roller coaster ride caused by his gambling. A few years later, his step son committed suicide. The death of a son is difficult for any parent. But autistic people are neurologically different and each of them processes emotions in a different way. Many of them internalize negative emotions that they have trouble processing and dealing with, which is exactly what Stuey did after his son’s suicide. His ex-wife Madeline noticed big changes in Stuey’s behavior after their son’s death.After Ritchie passed away, I saw his use of drugs even more. He didn’t care how he looked. He didn’t care how he ate. He just became a recluse.

Stuey dropped out of sight for almost 10 years and struggled with gambling problems and cocaine dependence. He had surgery to repair his nose, which had collapsed from years of cocaine use. But within hours of the surgery, he used cocaine again and his nose was never fully repaired.

In 1997, Stuey was broke and wanted to make a comeback and prove to himself and the world that he still had the amazing talent he had so many years earlier. His old friend Billy Baxter relucantly agreed to pay Stuey’s $10,000 entry fee into the 1997 World Series Of Poker. By that time Stuey was weak and exhausted and the youthful looking boy who still went by the nickname “The Kid” now looked and felt years older than he was, and he was not sure he had the energy to play in another tournament. He promised himself that he would keep a picture of his daughter in his shirt pocket throughout the tournament to remind himself that he was playing for her. He was the last person to register for the tournament, registering only minutes before registration closed. There were 312 players in the tournament that year. During the tournament, other professional poker players described Stuey as clairvoyant, because of his amazing ability to figure out what cards the other players were holding. Stuey did not disappoint. He went on to win the tournament and the grand prize of one million dollars. It was the third and final time he would win the main event at the WSOP. He split the one million dollar prize with Billy Baxter, who paid his entry fee into the tournament. But only months later, Stuey was broke again. Billy Baxter offered again to pay his entry fee into the 1998 World Series Of Poker, but at the age of 44, Stuey refused to play because his body was too frail and he did not have the energy to play poker for long periods of time.

Stu Ungar 2
Stu Ungar, during the 1997 World Series of Poker, wearing cobalt blue tinted sunglasses to hide the fact that his nasal passages were collapsed from nearly 20 years of cocaine use.
Photo from Card Player.

On November 22 1998, while staying in a cheap motel on the north end of the Las Vegas strip, Stuey was found dead at the age of 45. There were traces of drugs in his system, but not enough to have killed him. His autopsy stated that his cause of death was heart failure, probably from years of daily cocaine use. At the time of his death he had no assets, he was completely broke except for $800 cash in his pocket. And even though Stuey won an estimated $30 million during his lifetime, his friends had to raise money to pay for his funeral.

Was Stu Ungar really autistic? Or am I reading more into his life’s story than was really there? He played in approximately 30 major poker tournaments in his life, and finished first in 10 of them. But as far as anyone knows, wealth and financial stability did not matter to Stu. He never held an ordinary job in his life, but his friend Mike Sexton said that Stuey went from being completely broke to being a millionaire at least 4 times in his life. To this day, if you ask any professional poker player, “Who was the greatest Texas Holdem player of all time?”, they will almost certainly say “Stu Ungar”.

Stu Ungar

* The quotes in bold print are from The Rise and Fall of Stu Ungar.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. srsalas
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 21:59:39

    Most certainly a beautiful mind

    Reply

  2. cleopitty
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 17:53:08

    Aspiekid has been a source of information and inspiration. I believe we are unaware of the loss we have with him withdrawing from the blogosphere. I remember cale from
    Spectrum siblings and how hos absence created a void in my source of understanding of my own path. I hope Aspiekid finds the inspiration to come back not only because it is his right but because his ideas are a light in our darkness (I use his and it can be hers).
    Through the blogs we all get to understand the size and depth of the spectrum and it also provides the courage for those who then accept their existence. A more than exceptional mind

    Reply

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